Despite media controversy, Joker is not a film that seems as though it could inspire violence, nor could it inspire change with the skin-deep messages it puts forward. It’s an enjoyable watch, but in the end, Joker does not inspire much of anything at all, no matter how badly it wants to.
The film follows Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a clown by trade and aspiring stand-up comedian, on his gradual transformation into one of the most famous Batman villains, the Joker. Joker opens with Arthur forcing himself to smile through the tears that smudge his clown makeup and ends on a genuine smile painted in his own blood.
If Joker’s selling point to you isn’t Phoenix’s performance, it should be. With his prior performances in mind, it’s no shock that Phoenix slipped down into the depth of the Joker’s psyche to set it loose, but it’s amazing to watch come to life nonetheless.
One struggle Arthur faces is the uncontrollable laughing fits that emerge in situations when he’s uncomfortable or nervous. Phoenix’s laughter is drenched in pain, down to the way he chokes on it in attempts to suppress it in his throat. Phoenix glides from a downtrodden, unstable Arthur Fleck to the disgustingly confident Joker without making you forget for a second that it’s the same person. He plays him sympathetic for the first two acts, but by the third, you’re watching someone you couldn’t even fathom sympathizing with.
Arthur’s development is subtle yet notable, seen in the loss of his laughter or nervous stammering. Trudging up and down the stairs feels heavy, like an impossible task that anyone who’s struggled with mental illness before can attest to. With some dye in his hair and blood on his hands, the Joker effortlessly slides down the very same stairs in a frenzied dance. For the first time, he realizes he exists and he’s capable of making change in the world, albeit this change is for the worse.
The film itself is a toss-up. It wears its influences (notably Taxi Driver and, to a lesser extent, The King of Comedy) on its sleeve, to the detriment of doing something unique with the story and seems to put forward an array of messages without settling on a stance.
Words like “gritty” and “dark” are getting thrown around as ways to describe the film. I’d counter those with “unsettling”. The grimy, decrepit apartment Arthur spends his days rotting away in; lingering shots on Phoenix’s protruding bones as Arthur dances around shirtless, gun in hand — at times, it’s genuinely uncomfortable to watch.
One thing this film does almost too successfully is create tension. You already know what’s going to happen with only the name of the movie in mind — you’re going to watch Arthur Fleck become the Joker — and yet, this film manages to pull out one unexpected scene after another. Even if you do see it coming, you watch the camera linger for too long or not pull away from the brutality as you’d expect it to. In this sense, the film is entirely self-assured, unflinching and well aware of what it is doing. The entire climax, home to the Joker’s big bad final speech, is as unsettling and tense as it gets due to the sheer rawness of the moment. From the technical aspects to Phoenix’s performance to the in-universe reaction, it all feels frighteningly authentic, as though you’re watching real events play out. Joker consistently hit the mark in terms of its tone and atmosphere. I came into the movie expecting murder after murder (as any sensible person would) and while that is what I got, my jaw still dropped every time.
Director Todd Phillips has attempted to clear the controversy surrounding the film by insisting Joker is not a political film. This may have been a dodge, but it wouldn’t be completely crazy to assume he’s telling the truth, as this film is about the Joker: nihilism, immorality and chaos incarnate. However, aside from being about the Joker, this film is also about Arthur Fleck, a poor, struggling, mentally ill man. Phillips could not avoid making this political if he wanted to. It is this lack of holding true to one clear message that is Joker’s ultimate downfall.
Perhaps there was no intent for there to be a message, which would be fine, but it comes across as though there is a muddled message regardless. The first two-thirds of Joker set up a story about how we continuously fail the mentally ill: from the system, who cuts funding and doesn’t actually care to listen, to society, who refuses to understand and instead grows irritated or jeers at their illness-specific shortcomings. It’s close to home. It’s powerful, especially with Phoenix in the titular role, as he nails the smallest of mannerisms of someone struggling to cope with their illness.
A switch flips as Joker leaps into its heavy third act, in which the script seems to imply on two occasions that the whole reason Arthur is painting the city of Gotham with blood is that he’s mentally ill and off his medication — not the fact that people have continuously shunned him for being mentally ill and requiring medication, the true problem that Joker had largely focused on for two acts of the film.
Despite this major flaw, Joker is worth seeing, even a few times over. It’s a gripping character study and showcase of Phoenix’s acting, with an unforgettable climax to boot. Yet, it clearly still wants to be more and can’t pull it off. Joker feels like a movie that’s attempting to say a lot, but just like Arthur Fleck’s, its own words get lost in its throat.